David Cronenberg is pretty much my favorite all-time director, so there was no doubt that I would see EASTERN PROMISES as soon as it opened here. I saw the film at the local multiplex on a Saturday afternoon, with a good-sized crowd, mostly Plaza shoppers, including two in Chiefs regalia. For the first time since 1986’s THE FLY, Cronenberg genuinely seems to have gone mainstream. And that’s kind of surreal.
The good news is, he hasn’t compromised anything in the process. EASTERN PROMISES has the structure and underpinnings of a traditional organized crime thriller, but is more muted, more chilling, more disturbing than that. Cronenberg is more interested in the world of the criminals than in what precisely they do, and the way this world intrudes on the one the rest of us inhabit is really what the film explores.
The film is set in London, and begins with a teenage Russian girl dying in childbirth. The midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), decides to look for the girl’s family so the baby won’t go into foster care, but all she has to start with is the girl’s diary, written in Russian. A card slipped inside directs her to an upscale restaurant run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a highly respected businessman who is, at first unbeknownst to Anna, the head of his own Slavic crime family, known as Vory V Zakone. She also meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is the chauffeur, bodyguard and clean-up man for Kirill (Vincent Cassell), Semyon’s son and heir and unpredictable enforcer for the gang. Nikolai starts to shadow Anna as she keeps asking questions, and in the meantime her uncle has translated much of the diary. It seems that this girl, who died at 14, was held captive by the family and forced to work as a prostitute- and the baby, of course, is evidence.
Apart from the thriller mechanics, the central focus of the film is the relationship between Nikolai and Anna. It borders on romantic but never quite reaches that state, as they have a world between them, allowing only a strong tension and attraction as they pursue their separate goals. As Anna tracks down the girl’s past, which becomes almost as much about giving the victim rest as it does about finding the baby a decent home, Nikolai seeks to protect Kirill from the repercussions of a poorly thought-out hit on a Chechen bigwig, at the same time becoming more entrenched in and valuable to Vory V Zakone. The bond between Nikolai and Kirill is also important, and there’s the faint hint of a gay subtext, which is an interesting contrast to the explicit homophobia the gangsters often display (and of course, barring a few prostitutes, their world is exclusively male.) Cronenberg even manages to work in his old standard theme, transformation of body and identity; in the Russian underworld tattoos speak of gang affiliations and prison experiences, and membership in Vory V Zakone is signified by star tattoos on the chest and knees (the latter to signify that the recipient bows to no man). And of course, Anna is seeking to pin an identity to the girl who died in her hospital, and throughout people are concealing their true natures (making this an effective companion piece to A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.)
Viggo Mortensen is becoming something like the next Clint Eastwood; a thinking man’s ass-kicker, who can generate fear and dread when he is utterly calm. Throughout he is charismatic and dangerous, with a seemingly straightforward working-man attitude concealing... something. There are not actually that many action scenes in the film, but the highlight, as just about every other critic has already noted, is an amazingly visceral sequence set in a steambath, as a nude and unarmed Nikolai faces off against two knife-wielding henchmen (guns are almost invisible in this movie.) It is raw, brutal, and more elaborate than anything I’ve scene Cronenberg put together while never seeming too neatly choreographed. He comes close to overshadowing everyone else in the movie, but Watts is never less than convincing, Vincent Cassell has some good scenes, and Muehller-Stahl makes his character all the more chilling for being likable.
Any other director, I think, would have exaggerated this material’s melodramatic side, and played it as a conventional genre thriller (which is not to say it wouldn’t have been good.) Cronenberg’s strength is in his restraint and his ability to bring a plain, unvarnished realism to fantastic situations, and he and screenwriter Steven Knight make this film less about its plot than about its characters and environment. This makes the film stand out from others of its type, and gives it an unusual staying power. There are many secrets to it, and you never feel assured that things will turn out a certain way. It’s an intense experience, slick with a rough texture, working both as noir entertainment and something deeper. One of the year’s best films, from a director from whom I expect nothing less.